Safeguarding Jews From Genetic Disease: DOR YESHORIM EXPANDS TO THE SEPHARDIC COMMUNITY
By: Kelly Jemal Massry
Born in Marrakech, Morocco on March 5th, 1951 to Eliyahu and Soulika Abisror, Rabbi Hanania (Henry) Abisror comes from a long line of distinguished descendants. His family’s ancestry dates all the way back to Mordechai Ha’Yehudi and his surname bears ties to Shaul Ha’Melech and the tribe of Binyamin. “I’m very proud of that,” the Rabbi says. Rabbi Abisror learned by example how to blend a pious nature with the heart of a leader. Both his father and paternal grandfather were learned businessmen. The latter, however, was also asheikh, a revered man who successfully governed Jews and Arabs together. His maternal grandfather, whose last name was Danan, was also a prominent Jew in his province. Perhaps it is from his grandfathers, then, that Rabbi Abisror gets his diplomatic nature, unreservedly greeting Jews of every nationality, granting them empathy as well as wisdom from our sages.
At the age of 10, the Rabbi traveled from Morocco to France to learn in the Novardok Yeshivah under Rabbi Gershom Liebman, zt”l. The Yeshivah focused heavily on mussar, as the Rosh Yeshivah was a student of the teachings of Rabbi Yisrael Salantar, zt”l, the father of the mussar movement. As a teenager, Rabbi Abisror went back to Morocco and studied at the Etz Hayim Yeshivah in Tangier. Even more influential, however, was his decision, in 1966, to pilgrimage from Morocco to New York to learn in Brooklyn’s Mir Yeshivah. While there, he developed a close relationship with the Rosh Yeshivah, Rabbi Shraga Moshe Kalmonowitz, zt”l. “I used to spend Shabbat in Rabbi Kalmonowitz’s home and I’m very friendly with his children,” Rabbi Abisror says.
There was one instance in particular, the Rabbi remembers, that truly revealed the character of the Rosh Yeshivah. “I had broken my arm,” Rabbi Abisror recalls,” and I couldn’t do netilyat yadayim. Rabbi Kalmonowitz personally escorted me to the dining room. He didn’t ask a student to do it; he himself washed my hands for me – and I saw the greatness in his personality.” Reflecting on his Mir Yeshivah experience, the rabbi says: “It’s the way a Jewish person is supposed to grow up. Especially someone like me who didn’t have his parents with him.”
The Abisrors carry themselves with dignity and routinely choose the bold and true route over the safe one. Perhaps that explains the actions that led Rabbi Abisror to further his involvement with our community. This was years ago, when the Chevra Kadisha – Burial Society – was first being established by Jacob Arama, zt”l, Sonny Laniado, shlit”a, and Mickey Kairey, zt”l. Although the three of them took care of all the arrangements for the deceased, they still needed a shomer – someone to watch the body. Rabbi Abisror was just a young yeshivah student when they came recruiting and he recalls how those around him balked at the chance. “They didn’t know how to relate to the situation,” he says. Somehow all eyes turned towards him, the only person who hadn’t vocally said “no” yet. “They asked me, ‘would you like to be a shomer?’ And I said, ‘why not?’ I offered my services.”After that, whenever they needed a shomer, they called me,” the Rabbi shares.
On March 28th, 1974, Rabbi Abisror married Ella Esther Wiener. They had the honor of having Rabbi Shmuel Berenbaum, one of the Mir Yeshivah Roshei Yeshivah, be the mesader kedushin at his wedding. Just after marriage, the Rabbi and his wife settled in Bradley Beach, New Jersey, Mrs. Abisror’s hometown. In 1978, the Rabbi, his wife and two oldest children, Yossi and Michel, moved to Deal.
At the time there was only one Syrian minyan in Long Branch, which was hosted in the Brothers of Israel Synagogue. Rabbi Abisror served as a shamash – caretaker - for that minyan which later became Ohel Simha, or Park Avenue Synagogue. Under the tutelage of Rabbi Moshe Dweck, zt”l, he learned the makamim of our community and went on to become a hazzan. “I’m Moroccan, so I wasn’t familiar with Syrian hazannut says the Rabbi. “But I happened to have a good voice,” so the tradition was worth learning. From then on, he was a staple, leading the services as hazan on Shabbat and the High Holidays. The Rabbi was also influential in establishing the Elberon Torah Center, Nagar Synagogue.
Approximately 17 years ago, the Rabbi’s life took another turn, when he was asked to be Assistant Hazan in Aventura Florida’s Safra Synagogue for the High Holidays. “At the time, my nephew, Rabbi Aharon Lankry, shlit”a, was the rabbi there and he recommended me for the position,” the Rabbi explains. Seeing the beauty of the synagogue and its surrounding community, he felt that it would one day be the perfect place to raise his younger children. After his third consecutive year as Assistant Hazan for the High Holidays, Rabbi and Mrs. Abisror decided to make a permanent move there.
During the Rabbi’s first Simhat Torah at the Safra Synagogue in Florida, there were barely ten people dancing around the Torah. Due to the tremendous effort of both Rabbi Abisror and the synagogue’s head Rabbi, Yosef Galimidi, shlit”a, today scores of people attend the synagogue on a daily basis. The Rabbi’s netz minyan and classes are a big draw. “Now we have so many people of all different age groups and backgrounds,” the Rabbi says. “Israelis, Argentinians, French, Mexicans, Columbians, Brazilians.... It’s truly an international synagogue.”
Rabbi Abisror’s words have had a life changing impact on those who have listened to them. Men and children alike sit in rapt attention during his classes. One father was so impressed by the way his young sons were heeding the words that he snapped a picture and sent it to Rabbi Abisror with the caption: “You are fulfilling your mission and purpose in this world!” Indeed, in at least one case, the Rabbi’s counsel actually brought life into the world. He shares the story of a brit milah he went to recently; one of his congregants had had a baby boy. “Rabbi, this baby is here because of you,” the man said to him when he got there. “Me? What do you mean?” the Rabbi said puzzled. “After your class on shalom bayit,” the man answered, “I went home and made peace with my wife.”
The Rabbi is a firm believer in the power of human kindness. Once, just by sensitively giving of his time and attention, he saved a life. The life in question was that of a neighbor who was not particularly religious but still had a lot of respect for Rabbis. Rabbi Abisror could tell he was troubled immediately upon seeing him and asked what was wrong. When the man struggled to get the words out, the Rabbi feared he was fatally sick. But no, the problem was the stock market crash of 2008. This once-wealthy man had lost all of his money in an instant and was brought down to his lowest point because of it. “He was completely lost and confused,” Rabbi Abisror says of the supplicant. “It’s easy to talk to someone who has emuna and is religious. But someone’s who’s not connected to Gd – what do you say?” Rabbi Abisror, knowing he had some time to spare, simply made him comfortable, consoling him with the occasional reference to Gd. “We sat in the same chairs from 10 AM until minha time,” the Rabbi remembers. “When we got up, he turned to me and said ‘you know what? I’m not contemplating suicide anymore.’”
Up until this point, the Rabbi had no idea he’d even been considering it! He thought the man was desperate, certainly, but not suicidal. Looking back on the experience, the Rabbi marvels at the way the situation turned. The man left his side with his life intact, ready and willing to accept the more humble lifestyle he’d have to live from now on. “Sometimes people just need a kind word,” the Rabbi declares. “A person can never say that he has nothing to offer. Sometimes a kind word means a lot more than anything else. You can be the poorest human being – but you say the right words, you can keep a person alive.” And as the mishna tells us, saving one Jewish life is akin to saving the whole world.
Recently, Rabbi Abisror was given the Ahavat Torah Award from the Hafetz Hayim Heritage Foundation and the Keter Torah Award from Yeshivat Doresh, a school for children with learning disabilities. When asked about his connection to these organizations, the Rabbi says: “I feel a special connection to both of these organizations. I admire The Hafetz Hayim Heritage Foundation for its unwavering devotion to spreading shalom and ahava throughout the world. I’m also very friendly with the Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivat Doresh, Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Salfer, Ph.D. I’m fond of all the wonderful work he does in the education world.”
Sometimes the Rabbi himself is in need of hizuk – and for that, he looks to Gd. He recalls a time, after he lost his business about 12 years ago, that he unquestionably saw the hand of Hashem in his life.He shares this story of hashkacha peratit (Divine Providence) al Kiddush Hashem – to inspire others:
The Rabbi, who was in tough financial straits, was driving back from New York to Florida with his wife and younger children just before Pesach. “I was really in No Man’s Land,” he admits. “I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life.” The Rabbi had his talet and tefilin on and mizmorim in his mouth when, at around 8 AM, he crossed into the Carolinas and got to this telltale sentence in Baruch She’amar: Baruch Gozer U’Mekayem.” It’s the only sentence in the mizmor, the Rabbi says, that doesn’t seem to be in praise of Hashem – but only if we take it to mean, “Hashem decrees and fulfills his decree.” If, however, we internalize the pasuk this way - “Hashem decrees and then gives us strength to continue living,” - we can face any hardship with renewed strength.
At the very moment that the Rabbi uttered these words - Baruch gozer u’mekayem,” – he heard a loud BANG. Pulling over, he discovered that his back tire was completely flat. The rabbi bent over to take the donut out of the trunk and began looking around for a wrench. Alas, he couldn’t find one. “I’m on Route 95 in the Carolinas,” the Rabbi says, painting the scene. “There was nothing close by.” His wife advised him to call AAA. “They asked where we were,” the Rabbi relays, “so I went to look for a road marker. I took about three steps from the car and what do I find? A four-way wrench!” Rabbi Abisror’s voice sparkles at the memory. “Hashem gave me a flat tire exactly where I could find a wrench to help me. At that moment, I needed a wrench and Hashem showed me His hand. He showed me, ‘I’m here for you.’ I was so impressed and overwhelmed, I forgot all about my problems.”
If you think the miracle is over, it’s not.
“As I come closer to my car,” the Rabbi continues, “a tow truck lands right behind me! He had come to help me. I asked, ‘How much is it going to cost me?’ And you know what the man said? No charge.” Thanks to the professional equipment aboard the tow truck, the tire was fixed in all of two minutes. “So you see, the hashkaha peratit went further,” the Rabbi insists. “Hashem gave me the wrench, but he didn’t want me to use it. As if He was telling me, ‘My son, I don’t want you to work hard. I don’t want you to get dirty. Here’s someone to do the work for you.’ I thought I would be stuck on that highway for at least an hour. Instead, I was on my way in 15 minutes and, more importantly, I had a newfound perspective on life.”
The Rabbi shares this story frequently in his classes. He does it to inspire others to continue believing in Hashem, even when all seems hopeless – and to urge them to enact their own sense of agency too. It is this combination of hishtadulut and emuna that has guided the Rabbi throughout his life. He steps in when needed, uses his gifts as best he can and trusts that Hashem will do the rest. There’s no denying what Hashem has enabled him to do so far – perpetuate, far and wide, the traditions he so loves.
The Rabbi and his wife have seven children Yossi, (Miami, FL), Michel, (Deal, NJ) Eli (Deal, NJ), Baruch, (Anchorage, AK), Tovi, (Brooklyn, NY), Orli, (Aventura, FL), and Yisrael, (Miami Beach, FL). Though so spread out in terms of where they live with their families, they have one thing in common – they all continue to follow in their father’s footsteps working with their respective communities to make a practical and spiritual difference.
As for the Rabbi himself, he has tremendously enriched both the Syrian and South Floridian communities. His home is always open for Shabbat meals and he has so enjoyed his experiences with community members. “The community is great – vibrant,” he attests. “Everybody I connect with has beautiful neshamot. They’re beautiful people. I hope to continue to work with them to build our community.”
We thank Rabbi Abisror for his contributions and for his compassion. The ripple effects of his stories and actions are no doubt still being realized. Gd willing, he, with his trademark personality, will continue to inspire many others to follow in the way of Hashem.